BARRANQUILLA, Colombia — The abrupt cancellation earlier this week of the Latin American adult industry conference, LALExpo, has been linked to a single press release from controversial, Mormon-led U.S. organization Operation Underground Railroad, which conservative members of the Colombian press used to pressure local officials to deny the necessary permits.
OUR represents itself as an “anti-trafficking” group, and its stated mission is to “shine a light worldwide on the global issue of child sex trafficking and exploitation, and in so doing rescue more children from slavery and assist law enforcement to seek justice for those who violate children.” However, the nonprofit has been the subject of recent scrutiny.
Last year, a series of in-depth reports by Vice revealed that some of the stories the nonprofit tells its donors “don't hold up to scrutiny, and some of its so-called ‘missions’ to save women and children from sex trafficking have been described by insiders as amateurish at best.”
One such report was titled “Inside the Shadowy Anti–Sex Trafficking Group OUR.” Others included “A Famed Anti-Sex Trafficking Group Has a Problem With the Truth” and “Operation Underground Railroad’s Carefully Crafted Public Image Is Falling Apart.”
In one of the stories, Vice described OUR's founder and president, Mormon activist Timothy “Tim” Ballard, arriving in Haiti on a “rescue mission” and revealing to local partners that his source was a “Utah psychic.”
The Vice report questioned the credibility of a group which “built its reputation on the image of highly polished, heroic rescues carried out by the best-of-the-best.”
Although OUR has no formal link with the Mormon Church, anti-porn crusading groups originating or based in Utah are entangled in the peculiar network of personal, public and religious allegiances that characterize the relationship between church and state in that Western state. Further, in a 2015 profile by Foreign Policy magazine, Ballard told an interviewer that his mission was religiously inspired.
“Ballard’s Mormon faith also heavily influences his work,” the reporter wrote after the interview, adding that Ballard confessed he felt compelled to engage in these “missions” because “the other option was to face my maker one day and tell him why I didn’t do it.”
A Colombian City That Wanted to Boast of 'Open Doors'
OUR became embroiled in the recent controversy between the LALExpo organizers and local Colombian religious conservatives seeking to ban the regional adult industry event, just as the trade show was about to receive approval from the city of Barranquilla.
As XBIZ reported, Barranquilla was the backup location secured by the organizers after a similar religious conservative campaign succeeded in expelling the show from it original planned location, Cartagena.
In fact, the mayor of Barranquilla himself had already expressed his support for LALExpo coming to his city.
Barranquilla Mayor Jaime Pumarejo explicitly told the press that denying LALExpo the permits because it is an adult industry trade show runs “contrary to our constitution.”
“We shouldn’t even be having this discussion,” a frustrated Pumarejo told reporters. “It’s not even up for debate: the law says that every law-abiding person, subject to the constitution, has a right — and that is a right not to be discriminated against. If they pay their taxes, and abide by our regulations, we shouldn’t even be having this discussion.”
Barranquilla, Mayor Pumarejo added, “is an open-door city. No only by conviction, but also because it’s what our constitution decrees ... ‘Here, there’s room for everyone — as long as the rules are followed.’ That’s the only slogan we should give the people.”
“Welcome, all, to Barranquilla!” he added, following up by answering in the affirmative a question about the positive economic impact of LALExpo for the city.
“Of course!” the mayor retorted, adding that hosting LALExpo “means jobs, means growth, means raising awareness about our city” and noting that similar adult industry trade shows “take place in Los Angeles, in Las Vegas, in Miami, in Europe — and they will also take place in Barranquilla.”
Enter the Religiously-Inspired U.S. 'Anti-Trafficking' Activists
That was when the religiously-inspired U.S. anti-sex-work activists intervened with a peculiarly timed and phrased press release and blog post.
As the local religious and conservative campaign attempted to sway local officials into denying LALExpo the Barranquilla permits, OUR issued a press release on June 3, written by in-house publicist Emily Evans, seemingly attempting to link an alleged sex trafficker to the adult industry.
The press release alleges that on May 24, an individual named Victor Galarza was “sentenced to 210 months in federal prison thanks to collaborative efforts from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Operation Underground Railroad and the Colombian government.”
According to OUR, which has no policing or state authority, Galarza had “trafficked seven known victims and filmed sexually explicit conduct of several of these young women and distributed the illegal videos on the internet.”
OUR used the press release to take credit for Galarza’s arrest and conviction.
“It was an honor to fight for justice alongside the seven brave survivors and the dedicated HSI agents in this case,” said OUR's Tyler Schwab, who has the title of Regional Aftercare Director, in the release.
“This case is a prime example of how public and private entities can come together to ensure the survivors are supported and receive the best outcome possible,” he added.
The Zealot's Go-To: Blame the Platforms
The press release, available worldwide through newswire services, links to a June 2 OUR blog post. Unlike the more neutrally worded press release, the blog post includes the tendentious line, “Watch a video of his arrest, and learn more about the case against Pornhub.”
The video of the arrest dates from Oct. 20, 2019. It’s a grainy, hand-held, Spanish-language “Cops”-style montage of what appears to be a raid by Medellín, Colombia police of what they allege are “a network of pimps” (“una red de proxenetas”).
The link referencing Pornhub leads to a Sept. 2021 Spanish-language article in Colombia’s El Espectador newspaper, mentioning that two Colombian nationals — presumably those allegedly trafficked by Galarza — were among the 34 plaintiffs in the NCOSE-promoted class-action suit against the leading adult tube site.
As XBIZ reported, in June 2021, a legal team headed by Michael J. Bowe, the former lawyer for Donald Trump and Jerry Falwell Jr., filed a massive civil lawsuit in California against Pornhub parent company MindGeek, its officials and investors, on behalf of 34 women who allege they were “human trafficked” by the company in relation to allegedly illegal videos uploaded by third parties onto its flagship tube site.
Immediately, local religious conservatives in Barranquilla used the OUR-amplified news of Galarza’s sentencing — which does not appear to have been covered in the U.S. or internationally by anyone except OUR, and later by Colombian sources describing the cancellation of LALExpo — to insinuate that the trade show’s sponsors were somehow responsible for “human trafficking.”
Barranquilla Official Flip-Flops
On June 7, Barranquilla’s Government Minister Jennifer Villarreal took to a major radio station, with a simultaneous telecast on YouTube, to justify the cancellation.
A Cartagena newswoman from W Radio Colombia prefaced the interview with a rambling statement full of baseless accusations, including an assertion that the event “promotes sexual violence and child pornography, among other things.”
Villarreal then blatantly equivocated, stating that “any event can be done in Barranquilla if it’s in the frame of lawfulness” but claiming that upon receiving documentation from the organizers, officials found “several points” that apparently were “not fulfilling regulations.”
Villarreal cited issues with “the list of panelists” and then, shifting to thick bureaucratic legalese, made an unclear and non sequitur reference to “police authorities and the current political situation in this country.”
“At this time, the execution of the event was not viable,” she concluded.
The interviewer then told Villarreal that an article by El Espectador newspaper — a reference to a year-old clipping provided by OUR — accused some of the sponsors of LALExpo of ties to “cases of sexual exploitation of Colombian women.”
Another radio interviewer barged into the conversation, adding, “Sorry, a report by this W Radio has indicated someone has been condemned — condemned! — for forced prostitution.”
“Yes, that’s important,” the first interviewer noted. “I want to know if you knew this information, if it was part of the decision-making, or if you’re learning this from our colleagues by El Espectador.”
Villarreal gave a vague reply, stating that “police information” was needed to corroborate that information.
Other W Radio interviewers also attempted to get Villarreal to somehow link the tenuous narrative connecting Victor Galarza with the NCOSE-promoted lawsuit against Pornhub — a narrative originated and propagated by OUR — with LALExpo and its sponsors.
Who Needs 'Evidence' When God Talks to You?
Sources familiar with the LALExpo cancellation told XBIZ that neither the organizers nor the sponsors were familiar with Galarza, his activities or his arrest before OUR linked the story to the Pornhub lawsuit.
“Most of the sponsors in question are lawful adult platforms, operating with third-party content just like YouTube or Facebook,” a source told XBIZ, pointing out that OUR and parts of the Colombian press are deliberately pretending that the ongoing lawsuits and debates about Section 230 have already been decided in favor of the pro-censorship forces.
“What Galarza is accused of doing is abominable from any point of view,” the source remarked. “Events like LALExpo go a long way towards making the industry safer and more formal, which has actually been shown to reduce the likelihood of criminal activity. It is absurd that, without any kind of clear connection, news of Galarza’s sentencing has been deployed without any evidence as a reason to stop an event that precisely helps avoid that kind of activity.”
But “evidence” and “causality” do not seem to be as important to Operation Underground Railroad — or its irresponsible media mouthpieces in Colombia and the U.S. — as divine inspiration.
According to the Foreign Policy profile, in a February 2015 interview with the Mormon magazine “LDS Living,” OUR leader Tim Ballard was “more candid about his faith” and admitted that he launched OUR after being directly instructed by God to “find the lost children.”